Delirium, Hallucinations, And Man’s Insignificance: A Review of ‘Terra Incognita’

None of Nabokov’s intensity is lost in Terra Incognita. The story follows the delirious Valliere (the narrator) and his longtime friend Gregson as they catch insects on their journey from Zonraki to the Gurano Hills. 

I was scanning a book shop shelf for Lolita’s predecessor The Enchanter when I caught sight of a book so slim I almost skimmed right over it. Vladimir Nabokov’s collection Terra Incognita is far from the tomb that is Ada or Ardor: the three short stories come in at under a hundred pages and the title short story Terra Incognita is a tiny fourteen.

Having read Nabokov’s mastery of characterisation in his longer works, I wanted to see what he could do with a shorter medium. None of Nabokov’s intensity is lost in Terra Incognita. The story follows the delirious Valliere (the narrator) and his longtime friend Gregson as they catch insects on their journey from Zonraki to the Gurano Hills.

Accompanied by the Badonians and their translator Cook, the group travel further and further into the forest, with their view of the Gurano Hills being blighted by an overhanging mist. Nabokov’s depiction of delirium is well executed: he maintains the narrator’s voice and progresses the plot whilst also showing that the group’s situation is steadily worsening.

‘I kept telling myself that my head was heavy from the long march, the heat, the medley of colors, and the forest din, but secretly I knew that I was ill.’

As they continue on, Cook and the natives ‘vanished noiselessly’ into the surrounding trees. Nabokov creates a sense of growing terror as it becomes clear that Valliere has little control over the situation: the forest is a life form of its own, complete with ‘monkeys’ that ‘snapped and chattered, while a comet-like bird flashed like Bengal light, crying out in its small, shrill voice’ which adds to the narrator’s disorientation.

The fact that the plot remains a tangible thread throughout the story while the narrator is suffering from hallucinations is a credit to Nabokov’s ability to handle plot constraints. Cook returns, minus the natives, and ‘began to swear that the natives had lead him away by force and had wanted to eat him.’

Valliere, Gregson, and Cook journey on together.

‘I was tormented by strange hallucinations.’

At one point Valliere grows so weak that Gregson insists that he and Cook will carry him the rest of the way. The narrator’s hallucinations convey his desire to transport himself from the forest into Western comfort: at one point ‘A large armchair rose, as if supported from below, out of the swamp.’

Nabokov maintains the dream like qualities of the story until the very end when, having seen Cook and Gregson murder each other, Valliere emerges from his thick film of delirium to see the natural world as it is. The line ‘For the last time I saw all this distinctly, consciously, with the seal of authenticity on everything- their skinned knees, the bright flies circling over them, the females of those flies already seeking a spot for ovulation.’ There is a strange tranquility to Valliere’s death, it is as if he is detatched from the situation and can view the scene like one would view a picture in a book.

Ofcourse, nature triumphs. In the end, Valliere is just a mammal in the forest. Nabokov emphasises the insignificance of man among nature through his depiction of weather such as the overhanging mist which clouds the travelers’ thoughts and disrupts their journey. He shows that humans are ill equipped to deal with the reality that is the thriving forest through the motif of furniture: as Valliere’s health declines he hallucinates armchairs, wallpaper, and the four walls to the imaginary room which symbolises his desire for a more manageable situation.

In the denouement, Valliere is physically unable to escape from the untameable entity that is the forest, and the reader assumes that the flies that crowd Gregson and Cook’s corpses are waiting for Valliere’s, too.

The Woman Behind the Wallpaper: Infantilisation and Autonomy in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’

The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) depicts a woman who is driven to insanity by her belief that ‘The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!’ Gilman’s short story functions as rejection of the infantilisation of women, the medical beliefs, and the misunderstood nature of mental illness present in Victorian England.

In 1885 Gilman gave birth to her daughter and was diagnosed with a form of nervous hysteria, which the modern reader would call postpartum depression. The cure for this mental illness was ascribed by the esteemed neurologist Dr. S Weir Mitchell. Upon visiting Mitchell in 1886, Gilman was told to follow the maxims of ‘the rest cure,’ Mitchell’s own invention. She was to be isolated and bedridden (for up to two months) and fed and cleaned by a nurse.

‘I was put to bed and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed… after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home, with this prescription: “Live as domestic a life as possible… And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.’

During this treatment Gilman’s health declined rapidly and, years later, having partially recovered from the trauma of ‘the rest cure’ she produced The Yellow Wallpaper.

Her short story highlights the absurdity of giving a mental illness a physical cure. At the beginning of the story the protagonist explains that her husband is a physician, and suggests ‘perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.’ This line emphasises the lack of autonomy women were given over their own treatment and, shown by the protagonist’s reluctance to admit the above thought to anything other than ‘dead paper,’ their own beliefs.

As the sinister tone of the story unravels the reader perceives a metamorphosis from the wife of a respected physician to the elusive, nameless creature that is the woman behind the wallpaper. This transformation is a way for the protagonist to maintain her own grasp on freedom, however weak that grasp may be.

The representation of the protagonist’s delusions is a warning against infantilising women. She attributes such great importance to finding out how the pattern moves that she destroys the wallpaper in an act of rebellion, and in doing so encourages her deluded belief that she is in control. At the height of her insanity she informs her husband ‘I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’

Gilman’s story functions as a call to arms against a the lack of freedom women had over their own care. In her article ‘Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,‘ Gilman writes that ‘It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate — so terrfying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.’ However, while Gilman considered her story to be a success, the modern reader will note how the woman was saved by her family allowing her to resume her normal life. Gilman’s story certainly made a dent in feminist literature (and Mitchell’s pride), but the battle for women’s autonomy still continued.

 

 

 

Colonisation, Technological Advancement, and Marriage Across A Galaxy: A Review of ‘The Book of Strange New Things’

‘The Book Of Strange New Things’ is Dutch born writer Michael Faber’s 28th book, published in 2014.

 

‘when sophisticated technology fails, primitive technology steps in to do the job’

In the not-so-distant future mankind transcends the barrier of space and inhabits a foreign planet. Or foreign planet(s). Faber is ambiguous about the progress of technology in his futuristic novel. The reader is aware of the enterprising space company USIC, but not of its competitors, and not of any other habitable planets. Far from the conventional Sci-Fi novel, Faber’s ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ is grounded in the relationship between Peter and Bea, the former of whom is launched further than any Christian missionary has ever ventured before.

In his mission to bring the word of God to the strange inhabitants of Oasis, Peter struggles to maintain a relationship with his spouse Bea. As the British economy collapses (which is at first foreshadowed through Bea’s message that the local Tesco has run out of tiramisu), Faber projects Peter’s anxieties about their relationship through his increasing need to be far away from the USIC base and living among the Oasans.

Incidentally, while living with the Oasans Peter is unable to communicate with Bea: the small ‘Shoot’ system they used to send messages requires electricity. Throughout this novel Faber shows both the extreme need for, and a total disinterest in, technology. Unlike the brutish depiction of aliens from traditional Sci-Fi authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Faber’s Oasans are not intent on world domination. The Oasans have a primitive view of the world, which they refer to as ‘here,’ having not contemplated the name of their planet. Faber’s presentation of the obsequious Oasans raises the idea that he is criticizing British colonisation: in this case the inhabitants are in the early stages of civilisation, and crucially, Peter notes, have not even created the wheel.

Peter finds himself experiencing a crisis of faith as the most likeable alien (Jesus Lover Five) falls ill, and Bea’s safety becomes dubious in the abruptly changing climate of Britain. The beginning of the novel marks a progression in British technological achievement, whereas the ending questions whether or not man should use technology to inhabit other planets, and in doing so, become alien themselves.

In a desperate attempt to reconnect with Bea, Peter informs the USIC of his intentions to return home. However, this too is dubious. Faber reveals precious few facts about the USIC: they have a rigorous interviewing process, and they refuse to send any of Peter’s messages that hold negative connotations about the USIC. Faber foregrounds the struggle between technology and man as the ending to ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ reads as the beginning of an apocalyptic novel. Interestingly, the prospect of Bea and Peter being forever separated is far more devastating than the collapse of the British Empire.